Whole life insurance is a type of permanent insurance or cash value insurance. Unlike term insurance, which provides coverage for a particular period of time, permanent insurance provides coverage for your entire life. When you make premium payments, you pay more than is needed to pay for the current costs of insurance coverage and expenses. The excess payment is credited to a cash value account. This cash value account allows the insurance company to charge a level, guaranteed premium* and to provide a death benefit and cash value throughout the life of the policy.
As you make payments, the cash value account grows. With traditional whole life insurance, the cash value account is guaranteed* and held in the insurance company’s general portfolio–you don’t get to choose how the cash value account is invested. However, the cash value can potentially grow beyond its guaranteed amount through the payment of dividends (profits earned by a "mutual" insurer). The cash value grows tax deferred and can either be used as collateral to borrow from the insurance company or be directly accessed through a partial or complete surrender of the policy. It is important to note, however, that a policy loan or partial surrender will reduce the policy’s death benefit, and a complete surrender will terminate coverage altogether.
If you live to the policy’s maturity date, the policy will "endow," and the insurance company will pay the accumulated cash value (equal at maturity to the death benefit) to you.